A character as complex, perhaps even contrived, as Joan Castleman must inspire discussion and disagreement. One thing all should agree is that, in Björn Runge’s big screen adaptation of The Wife, she has been brought to breathtaking life by a career-best Glenn Close. Of course, it helps that the tale is compelling and the director assured but there’s no denying that this is an acting masterclass.
It is often a fault of cinema’s imitation of first-person literature, this being a filming of the eponymous book by Meg Wolitzer, that the inner affectations of the narrator cannot be translated. Not so here. Certainly, it is hard to think of a film adaptation that has so auspiciously conveyed the inner workings of a protagonist mind as is achieved in this case. Much of The Wife’s success lies in the hands of its leading lady and her panopleptic eyes, yet it would be wrong to overlook the strong work of her co-stars and director, in his English language debut. On which note, praise must too be heaped on the deft work of screenwriter Jane Anderson.
It is the written word that forms the basis of the film’s predominant plot. Joan is the seemingly devoted wife of eminent author and ‘narcissistic bastard’ Joe Castleman, who, as the film opens, is on the verge of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. They’ve been a partnership since the sixties – back when he was a married creative writing teacher with a penchant for cracking walnuts and quoting Joyce and she his promising young student – but by the nineties, in which the main action is set, Joan is very much in Joe’s shadow. Whilst she names herself a ‘kingmaker’, he proclaims to a room of intellectuals: ‘my wife doesn’t write, thank God!’
On the eve of the Nobel Prize ceremony, the Castlemans are approached by weasely, leather jacket and specs journalist Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who has set himself the duty of writing Joe’s unwanted biography. He’s a superficial sycophant – ‘I don’t think people give the spouse enough credit’ – but serves best as a device to expose the secrets of the past. Nathaniel is certain of what we already suspect, what we see etched into Joan’s multiplicitously emotive face, that a malaise haunts the Castleman matrimony. Their more blatantly embittered son David (Max Irons) knows it too. Dismissed by Joe, from whom he yearns approval, as still ‘developing quite a voice’, he too is a writer and has produced a short about a promiscuous husband and the wife who represses her rage. It’s all too close to home.
And yet, there’s more to this story than infidelity. Flashbacks to the fifties and sixties see Joe and Joan played by Harry Lloyd and Annie Starke respectively and explore the foundations of the senior selves’ shaken relationship. Adroit parallels in Anderson’s script are well realised by Runge and serve as a cultural warning against the allowance of status continuation. Epitomising the culturally dominant white male, Joe’s reaction to the publication of his first book is mirrored by his response to receiving the Nobel Prize decades later. Likewise, his approach to flirting – quoting Joyce and writing on walnuts – remains stubbornly unaltered. In his shadow, carrying his coat and organising his schedule, Joan has evolved a mantle of steadfast subservience that was born the day a prominent woman writer (a terrific cameo by Elizabeth McGovern) told her to give up her dreams of a literary career: ‘Don’t ever think you can get their attention.’
Marking his first English language feature, Runge’s direction is steadfast and captured in long takes throughout; a wisely seamless approach that allows his leads to shine. No matter who is dialogically dominating a scene, the camera seems to slide back towards Close, inviting audiences to read her often Greek and frequently conflicting reactions. Her final act eruption is well earned but the fallout breaks the heart.